A wake-up call to Washington on defense

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Article Highlights

  • Congress must reverse the entire Budget Control Act, not just sequestration

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  • The NDP lays out a concrete roadmap for the Pentagon to begin rebuilding America’s military superiority

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  • The world will not stop just because Congress is on vacation

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While lawmakers are set to leave for the August recess this week and presume their work in Washington is done for the summer, a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission report out Thursday has a different message and stark warning.

The bottom line: The Budget Control Act, with its massive defense cuts totaling almost $1 trillion, has harmed America’s military, and immediate reversal is required. The force is nearing high-risk status, and the outcomes could be disastrous for those in uniform, the nation, and its interests.

Defense heavyweights – including Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, former defense policy chiefs to Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and the former Senate Seapower chairman – just sent over their “stress test” of the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy to Capitol Hill.

Unlike many blue ribbon commission reports, the National Defense Panel (NDP) recommendations are blunt, serious, and urgent. The panel report describes in detail the dangerous accumulation of challenges to American military power and charts a path to reverse this decline.

An immediate problem addressed by the group is an emerging readiness crisis more than a decade in the making. This “enduring comparative advantage of America’s military” is at risk. Worse, the NDP rightly notes that the fix gets harder, the costs get bigger and the time gets longer to address the military’s readiness crisis with each passing day.

In a sign of just how Pentagon problems have grown since passage of the Budget Control Act, these defense policy stalwarts recommend that Congress pass an emergency readiness supplemental immediately. In addition, they emphatically make the case for a return to 2012 spending levels for the Defense Department, effectively repealing and reversing the entire Budget Control Act for the military.

Nor do the commissioners believe any amount of reform, efficiencies or innovation will cure what ails the Department of Defense. These are all incredibly important pursuits that can and must continue. However, they are not holistic solutions large enough to fill the growing gap of resources to strategic objectives the military is confronting globally.

Compounding readiness challenges, the panel argues that the “erosion of America’s military-technological advantage is accelerating faster than many defense planners assume.” In the rapidly changing threat environment of today, “U.S. military superiority is not a given.” To ensure the Pentagon stays ahead of the competition, the panel recommends “an energetic program of targeted reinvestment,” a larger Navy and Air Force, and a halt to planned reductions in active duty Army end strength. They call for greater investment in ISR systems, space architecture, cyber capabilities, joint command and control, air superiority assets, long-range and precision strike capability, undersea and surface naval warfare, electric and directed energy weapons, strategic lift, and logistics.

The panel also highlights the fact that capacity has become a capability all its own. Commissioners are understandably concerned with the rapidly shrinking size of the armed forces. The panel notes that “even a highly superior force cannot sustain a sufficient global presence and deter conflicts in different theaters at the same time if the size of the overall force structure is not adequate.” The result is that the Pentagon’s 2014 “QDR force is not adequate to meet these posture requirements, that the readiness of the force is rapidly declining, and that it will continue to worsen under the current defense budget baseline of sequestration.”

Finally, the National Defense Panel seeks a significant shift in the Pentagon’s traditional force-sizing construct by attempting to incorporate more steady state and peacetime demands upon U.S. forces as part of the planning by leaders in deciding how to build and buy the military of tomorrow. The report calls this kind of global war-fighting capability the “sine qua non of a superpower.”

In light of these increasing challenges, the NDP lays out a concrete roadmap for the Pentagon to begin rebuilding America’s military superiority. While this process will take time and money, the latter will be especially important. Towards this end, the panel recommends Congress and the President repeal the Budget Control Act and return to the baseline funding plan established by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in fiscal year 2012. Next, Congress should pass a readiness supplemental. Thirdly, the panel calls on both branches to work together to develop a long-term plan to address how the Pentagon intends to meet the panel’s recommended force-sizing construct. And finally, the group calls for predictable defense budgets that ease military planning.

The National Defense Panel report concludes by warning “American military forces will be at high risk to accomplish the nation’s defense strategy in the near future unless recommendations of the kind we make in this report are speedily adopted.”

In light of deteriorating world events, this wake-up call should be come as little surprise that the status quo is unacceptable. As the panel notes, “In our constitutional republic, the use of military power in any particular situation has been, and should be a matter of informed debate. But the need for such power has been much less controversial.”

Congress, Pentagon leaders, and the White House must heed the warnings of the National Defense Panel’s bipartisan report and leap into action to reverse military decline. The world will not stop just because Congress is on vacation and neither will the U.S. military. It is time for politicians to demonstrate that same level of commitment to tackling tough issues no matter the date on the calendar.

In the words of the NDP, “an America less capable of global leadership will soon become a poorer America less capable of meeting its other federal priorities.” Growing global insecurity is now directly affecting America’s economic prosperity, and Washington will have to address both at some point no matter what. The question is whether policymakers will choose to pay now or pay more later.

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